DTG Interviews Russel Arnold
DTG: I want to start off this interview by talking how you got into cricket. What inspired you to pursue it as a career and were there any players that inspired you?
RA: Our lifestyle is what got me into cricket. Growing up in SL, down the parks and in every nook and corner and at the beach, that's what we do. My life as a cricketer was a gradual process. At school, cricket is played at different age levels and I quietly slotted into those teams. I was having a good time with it and suddenly you find yourself in a zone you dreamt of because you watched a lot of cricket growing up. Of course, there wasn't a lot of it on TV in those days but I remember going down to watch the first Test match so it was something that kind of just happened.
DTG: Were there any players in your youth who you looked up to?
RA: There were a lot who stood out, I remember Dean Jones, his aggression and his approach was something special that I admired. Aravinda de Silva from SL was very stylish. It was always at the back of your mind, if you'd be able to compete with these guys and how life would be. Suddenly when you turned around and it happened to you, it was a wakeup call. The names I mentioned stood out for me.
DTG: You've played almost 200 ODIs and 50 Tests for SL. What's the most memorable moment of your career?
RA: The most special thing was the fact that I played for SL. Having that honour and being a part of such a story and what it's done for me in life, it's a lifestyle. We've made friends, got to travel around the world and it's taken us places. For me, it's more about being thankful for being a part of such a wonderful thing. I believe cricket is a lifestyle, the values you learn in cricket relate directly to life. It's a wonderful thing that happened to me. There were special games and performances, but cricket as life is the special thing.
DTG: After your playing career, you went on to become a commentator. What inspired you to choose that instead of going into coaching or something else related to cricket?
RA: When I retired, it was about moving on. I didn't have any plans in what I was going to do while playing. I did have another job; I was working in a bank. I had done a few banking exams and that's what we were planning on. But again, just as it happened in my playing days, commentary happened. I guess it's a trend that broadcasters like big names, captains and legends but fortunately for me, at that stage there weren't too many Sri Lankan cricketers who spoke English. We rolled on from there and it was fun, it seemed to be working for me. I had a lot of things to work on, to better my voice, my game plan and delivery and also evolve to keep the interest going. I've enjoyed that journey very much, doing some different things. It wasn't a plan when I retired, it's a path that life take you on.
DTG: The challenge with being a commentator is that you're always on the road. You might be in Sydney one day then Melbourne, then SL, then England. How do you manage the challenge of this as you probably have to stay away from your family for extended periods? How do you balance family life and your professional life?
RA: Well, we don't spend as much time as we would while we were players. Also, not as much as the coaching staff, because we don't have to train, we show up for the game. But yes, the travel is the challenge, being on planes and all that. With time, you get over it and it takes its toll but when it comes to the work, you couldn't ask for something better. This is something you loved growing up which gave you a life and here you are still enjoying it and talking about it which is fascinating really. It's not a job, it's a lifestyle. The biggest challenge is staying away from family, especially when you have young children. That balance is tricky, sometimes you have to travel a lot which takes its toll on the body. The worst thing are the dead days, the days between games. I'm a guest on other broadcasters' panels. Some of the other commentators could go back home and come back later but I have to kill time on my own. A lot of discipline needs to come into your life so that you don't lose your way and you must lead a healthy lifestyle. Then the thought of the family at home, and I could've been doing this or that with them, it drills it into you. The bigger picture: you couldn't ask for a better lifestyle.
DTG: Let's talk about the three players who were the central 3 pillars of SL cricket over the past few decades, namely Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene and Muttiah Muralitharan. Do you think SL currently has 3-4 players who can emerge out of their shell and take over the mantle of these players for the foreseeable future?
RA: I do think there's a lot of skill and talent in SL. To me the problem is that everyone is trying to replace those players. It can't be done because they're in a zone of their own, they're legends of the game. For me, there's other names like Tillakaratne Dilshan, Rangana Herath and Chaminda Vaas who made the team better. So, it's not just 2-3 players. For me, the expectations of these big boys on these plays is wearing them down. They have to be like them, play like them and deliver like them. If we look at the records of some of the younger guys, they're probably ahead in terms of numbers and what they've achieved at the same stage of the careers as the legends. But we look at the performances that the legends delivered at the end of their careers which does add a lot of weight on the youngsters. When you have skill and the opportunity to shine in your own style, that's what's important. If you think of when the Sangakkaras and Jayawardenes came into the team, the onus wasn't on them to make 200, there was Atapattu, Jayasuriya, de Silva. But at this time, there's no one like that and the younger players have to deliver because of the vacuum. The equations and expectations are totally different. From the younger players' point of view, they also see the end results of the legends, not the steps they took in their earlier days and the hard work they put in. SL is never short of skill. Even with all the disastrous results over the past 2-3 years, now and again there have been some outstanding performances. You wonder why they can't do it more often. The skills are there, the problem is to churn it day in, day out and be that proper unit. I think all these factors add to it; these are angles we probably don't think of. These guys are already having to perform at that high level. So, we have these problems that aren't allowing the system to go smoothly. Kusal Mendis, Kusal Perera, Angelo Mathews who's done it for a while, Lasith Malinga who's past his best, they have all made an impact. The bowling unit plays a part, you can use the bowlers at various stages, Malinga at vital times, they make a difference to the end result. When the SL team was doing well, it wasn't all based on the batting. Kulasekara would take the new ball and there was Senanayake, Ajantha Mendis, Herath and then Malinga, that's a unit. Pressure is there and Malinga delivers but now he has to shift extra gears which isn't always practical. In this World Cup, I think with a little luck, SL have players capable of being new heroes, hopefully they stand up. I expect them to surprise a few teams but I'll be presently surprised if they're around come the end of the tournament.
DTG: What are your takeaways from the SL World Cup squad? Do you think there are any major omissions or that someone's there who doesn't deserve to be there?
RA: They're trying to balance it. In SL terms, they're trying to cover every base. The problem is we don't have names who have done it consistently. They way SL cricket has been of late, it doesn't surprise me who is or isn't there. No one's put their hands up and said this place is mine. It's all up for debate. The selectors can go in any direction, some will be unlucky or lucky. But I don't think anyone can say I've done enough for that spot to be mine. They've looked around and tried to cover all bases. They've gone for a few players who haven't played in 3-4 years but I can't find fault with it. You pick whoever you want because you're trying to get a team together who might go and do their best. On form, there's no player who really deserves it, like he has to be there. Whereas with any other team or SL teams of the past, you'd pick the 11 players and another 8-9 who you can close your eyes and write their names down. Other teams have 2 groups but SL doesn't have that. Other teams are arguing over the last place, SL aren't in that situation. It's up there for argument but at the end of the day, the team is decided. They've tried to cover bases; players have to step up. I'm surprised with Dimuth Karunaratne being captain. He hasn't played in the last 4 years in ODIs, though I've been vocal in the last couple of years because he should be in the ODI team. Because SL in the first 10 overs often lose 3 wickets then the innings can't go anywhere. His style in Tests is solid, he scores freely. He might not score at 120 but he can bat at 90 and bat 40 overs and get you a 100 so the other stroke makers can play around him. With his maturity, I felt he had a role to play. But to come in and take over the WC team, it's a bit surprising for me.
DTG: Who could've been captain instead of Karunaratne?
RA: Malinga has been captain over the last 8-10 months. The results have been hard, they've not had their best players, we need to understand that. People look at captaincy records blah blah blah. Angelo Mathews has a very good record but his career needs to be broken into 2. Before the retirements of the greats, and after. It gives you a different picture. In reality, Malinga had a tough job. In SA and NZ, there was no Mathews who was his senior player who would've been the glue. Players you can rely on weren't there so it's in bits and parts. Malinga, to have achieved what he has around the world, he's quite tactically savvy, I wouldn't have seen any harm in going through with it.
DTG: Angelo Mathews has had a lot of injury issues over the recent past. Where do you see his career headed? Should he take a break from Cricket?
RA: If he takes a break, age isn't on his side. That'd be his career. When he was captain, he's a great player, liked what he brought, fantastic to have a seaming all-rounder for balance, he was an extra option, but I wasn't too excited about him being captain because he was regularly injured. So, you're always changing plans, for me the captain has to be on the park. Each time he gets injured, the new captain will always think slightly differently so for every team, roles and how players operate, all that has to be understood and it has to work like a well-oiled unit. That'd never happen because it was constantly changing. So, for me, the captain has to be on the park all the time so that the thinking flows down and there's continuity. It's a tricky one, Mathews not bowling and then his recent injury came up without bowling as well. I can only hope that he stays fit and plays for as long as he can.
DTG: Do you think Thisara Perera brings enough with bat and ball to give the all-round department of SL a boost?
RA: That's the disappointment, for him to be around for so long and not command the respect and authority he should. He's a dominant factor with bat and ball, he should be making the difference for SL cricket. He's been around. Lately, his batting has improved but has it improved enough to be unpredictable for the bowlers? He hasn't evolved and the biggest let-down has been the bowling. Batting at 6/7 and if the captain can trust him to get 8 overs off him, it makes a world of difference in balancing the team. You can go for a different type of player to strengthen another area. It's difficult to pick him as a batsman or bowler only. Mathews you can pick as a batsman, but Thisara's batting is the only thing you can rely on. Those are questions you need to ask. The potential and opportunities he's been given over the years, I don't think they've got the results. The seniors who have been around for a long time need to boss the situation in terms of how they make a difference to the team. That's where SL has lacked and the onus has been on the younger players and they get chopped and changed because they haven't scored their 100s.
DTG: Let's talk about Kusal Mendis. Many believe he's one who can play for SL for a long time. What do you make of his career so far and where do you see him going forward? How do you think he'll do in the World Cup?
RA: I'm expecting him to do well. Looking at the matches in England, the pitches seem very good and Kusal Mendis is an instinctive player. He'll surprise bowlers with his stroke play and the areas he can hit. Hopefully the rest of the batsmen and the team batting unit set it up for him so he can free himself and play his shots rather than having to think about holding the wickets together or the run rate. Sometimes you have to let players play freely, that's why there are players like Karunaratne there to allow the stroke players to express themselves. In the 2011 WC, Yuvraj Singh batting freely because you had MS Dhoni who would absorb pressure and balance the innings, then the x-factor shines. Mendis has been impressive but he hasn't hit the consistency levels you'd like. He's had a stellar start and hopefully he stays grounded as a player and I see him around for quite a while.
DTG: Back to the 2011 WC final, where do you think SL went wrong in that match?
RA: It was disappointing because SL had a good team and they were on a roll, things were covered but we always knew India were the threat. SL likes to choke the opposition and dominate with spin; India plays spin well and they're a strong batting line-up. Right through, always felt India is the real threat and luckily enough they made it to the final. India was the better team so congrats to them but I think SL missed a trick in how they went about the game. There was the mishap of Mathews getting injured in the SF so the team had to be chopped and changed. Two changes had to be made to cover both ends as he batted and bowled. The biggest problem SL had was that the conditions were different. SL had played their matches in SL where the equations and scores are different. Lot more dew in India and you need more runs. SL had one game outside which was against NZ at Wankhede which offers more bounce and they beat NZ easily. They batted first and got a certain amount of runs and the game was over by 20-25 overs because they had got 6-7 wickets. That's when the dew sets in. In the WC final, they went with the same plan, the dew experience wasn't there. They held back Muralitharan after taking 2 early wickets. He came on to bowl and the dew had set in and he struggled with the ball. Yeah, we were 20 short but Murali should have been in the attack earlier trying to get another wicket.
DTG: Back to the 2019 World Cup, who do you think will be the four semi-finalists?
RA: I feel England, India and Australia will certainly make it. Australia got their mojo and seem to be buzzing, things are on the right track. England are very strong; India have all bases covered. For the fourth spot, I'm thinking SA or Pakistan, depending on the SA fast-bowling unit. If they get the unit back together, the fourth spot goes to SA.
DTG: Who do you think is the best batsman and best bowler in the world currently?
RA: Virat Kohli easily amongst the batsmen. In bowling; Jasprit Bumrah, Rashid Khan for something different. I can't look beyond that. Looking forward to the World Cup, I think Jos Buttler will have a stellar World Cup.
DTG: Thank you for joining us today!